It's not quite as dramatic as breaking training camp, but the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are about to bring another chapter of their offseason to a close.
On Monday, the Buccaneers will begin their fourth and final week of OTAs, the now ubiquitous acronym that stands for "organized team activity" days. That OTA has become as easily recognized in the NFL lexicon as "mini-camp" or "training camp" is an indication of how important those offseason workouts are now considered to be.
Each team is allotted a maximum of 14 OTA days, during which it can conduct a fairly standard and organized practice, albeit with a ban on any real contact. The Buccaneers have used their 14 OTAs in groups of three and four over four different weeks, essentially meaning they've had a solid month of practice to lead into their one full-team mandatory mini-camp of the offseason. That three-day session begins on Monday, June 21 and will be the last real work the team does before training camp starts roughly six weeks later.
The Buccaneers adjusted their OTA schedule this year in order to make sure that most of their new rookies could participate in all of them. The first set of OTAs wasn't held until the week of May 17. Now the Bucs are about to utilize their last four OTAs and Head Coach Raheem Morris would like to see a virtual replay of the last few weeks. With real contact having to wait until training camp - and thus Morris' emphasis on toughness and physical play currently taking a back seat - the OTAs have been about timing and precision. They've also, in recent days, begun to focus more specifically on special categories like red zone and the two-minute drill.
"Every day we come in with a certain situation or a special category that we want to address that day, as far as teaching," said Morris. "And it starts right from my team meeting at eight o'clock. Those guys come in and let them know what the day's going to be. Every once in awhile there are some rules and regulations - 'Hey guys, we need some Gatorade bottles picked up, too many lying on the floor' - or whatever the case may be. Your team concept that day may be something about practice the day before, or whatever the case may be, but we always want to tell those guys what the special category is that day."
OTAs also allow coaches to hold meetings with their players, much as they would in any mini-camp or midseason practice. There is a limit to this aspect of the day, too - players can only be in organized meetings for so long, and the Bucs' staff generally tries to get its men out of the facility not long after the late-morning practice - but it's enough to make practice more meaningful. Coaches use pre-practice meetings to define the work ahead and make sure the workout is efficient and productive, and they use brief post-practice meetings to discuss what went right and wrong.
"You may have a certain installation of plays that you're going to put in for two-minute," said Morris. "I have a certain installation of defenses I'm going to put in for two-minute. There's a certain number of plays we want to get to, there's a certain amount of looks we want to see, there's a certain amount of coaching points you have to give. Then after that you go out and execute what you just talked about."
Neither the contact ban nor the time limitations are enough to deter the Bucs or their fellow teams from getting in the necessary work, in part because almost every player on the roster chooses to participate in the voluntary sessions. Tampa Bay players and coaches use these four weeks to install as much of the playbook as possible, so that training camp becomes something of an intense review. The lack of contact does mean, however, that the passing game takes a more prominent role.
"It's a very good situation for us," said Morris. "For us, it's mainly a passing situation. It's a non-contact type of camp, so it's really good. We try to stay away from those types of things. We talk about being physical and tough in training camp; right now we're just working on timing and precision. These guys are getting better with what they've got to do with their calls and their communication, where they're supposed to be, the right place. We're always going to be very competitive but very much within the rules of our league."
Those rules allow each team 14 OTAs, and the Buccaneers are certainly going to take advantage of all of them. Each step in the team's preparations for the 2010 season opener is only as effective as the one before it. The Bucs want to be completely prepared for their June mini-camp, which in turn will shepherd them into training camp. Morris thinks the Buccaneers are right on schedule.
"You've got to go out there and get it done because you don't want to be behind the eight ball," he said. "Right now, we could be behind the eight ball, but I feel like we're ahead of the eight ball as far as our preparation and what we need to do as an organization."